Not too long ago I got in my car and traveled across the state to go home to go to my uncle’s funeral. Well, actually, it was my wife’s car. I got a new pickup and no way did I want to put a couple thousand miles on my new 2019 piece of beautifully engineered Chevrolet machinery.
On the way to the funeral, I spent a bit of time where I was born, raised, and educated. When I spend time there I do the drive around… it’s a two hour drive around all of the town to see what has changed and what has stayed the same. I also drive by the homes of my childhood friends to see if their parents are outside so I can conveniently strike up a conversation with them. Of course… I couldn’t just barge on in unannounced, or call them on the phone to say “I’m coming over.” Oh no. It must be the perfect mix of surprise and non-intrusiveness.
On the drive I discovered the building that housed the Piggly Wiggly I went to as a child with my mom was no more. Gone. The restaurant I washed dishes at, and later moved up to cook. Gone. The music store I went to as a teenager with my buddies, looking at drums and guitars, and dreaming about starting a band (until we in fact, did start a band), gone. My Jr. High School – where I spent the two worst years of my life with 500 other kids who were having the two worst years of their lives, gone. It got demolished after the last flood. When I sat in the cracked up parking lot looking at the unkept vacant land, my mind gravitated back to thinking about and looking at the exact spot where Kevin Watson purposely poured perfume on me in the hallway before 2nd hour, and none of my teachers the rest of the day would let me go shower or call my mom to bring me new clothes. Where that hallway was, the grass was at least 8 inches high in that spot now. And focusing on that spot where there's 8 inches of grass now, my thoughts turned.
Now I wondered to myself, "How in the hell did I come from this place?"
Now, I can’t just live the novelty of driving around all these places in my earlier life on its own. No. These kinds of emotional yesteryear adventures must be paired with music. And so it was:
“There are places I'll remember
All my life, though some have changed
Some forever, not for better
Some have gone, and some remain
All these places had their moments
With lovers and friends, I still can recall
Some are dead, and some are living
In my life, I've loved them all.”
Some situations require John, Paul, George, and Ringo to really make sense of it all.
Now, my uncle was an integral part of my growings up. Earl was quite the esoteric individual. He grew up a slightly impoverished Norwegian boy from North Dakota, who just managed to end up going to Harvard University. He then came back to North Dakota to go into his own business. First a furniture store and then later, contracting and interior design work. He lived his whole life in North Dakota both simultaneously fitting in and not fitting in at the same time.
Whenever Earl came to visit, it was a mini-celebration. He always brought with him a bucket of fried chicken from the grocery store deli for supper. So when Earl came, I knew I was getting at least three of the four drumsticks in the bucket. My brother Lynn would grab the 4th. When Earl came to visit, time stopped. The normal hum-drum of our days or nights was over. Intentionality set in. And visiting was sure to commence. And the whole family sat and talked, all the way from my grandma on down to me.
So, I never saw Earl without a bucket of chicken. Now when I got a little older and had the wisdom of a 13 year-old, I began to notice I also never saw Earl without a glass of scotch in his hands either. It’s like somehow the chicken in his right hand and the scotch in his left, balanced each other out.
Earl had a devotion to family that in my life as a pastor, I’ve not often seen. Every Christmas was again, an Earl attended mini-celebration, but it came with his holiday tradition of staying up until 4 or 5 a.m. after Christmas putting together a jig-saw puzzle with Grandma Irene. Even though I never participated in the Christmas puzzling event, I was well aware of the tradition and all it entailed. My only possibly entrance into helping was if I was lucky enough to stop over the next afternoon before they finished putting all the pieces in, then I’d help them finish. And while I was never there for the Grandma & Earl puzzle assembly, I remember every time sitting in awe of how devoted he was to his mom/my grandma when seeing 500 interlocking pieces of thin cardboard showing balloons, butterflies, or that kind of nature scene with really green grass and a brick barn in the background
It’s my belief that everyone needs an uncle Earl. A kind of distant relative to show up and be the life of the party. It’s as though Earl knew his exact role was to make memories for everyone he encountered.
“Some are dead, and some are living
In my life, I've loved them all.”
Throughout our lives we often try to avoid bad and steer towards good. However we might define those things, we seek to avoid pain, and move towards pleasure. That’s humanity, even if it is a mistaken strategy. And let me be clear – it is a mistaken strategy. See, our lives are full of the relationships that we are in, or ever have been in. Our experiences create us to be who we are. We are a result of the sum of our experiences. It’s like a math equation:
Kevin Watson pouring perfume on me + Uncle Earl bringing a bucket of chicken = Grumpy Pastor.
All of us have those kinds of memories. Some good. Some bad. Go ahead and remember them. Resonate on them. Roll them around in your brain. Why? Because, they just might have created you to be who you are. And that ain’t such a bad thing.
Smell ya later,